President Thabo Mbeki has come up with a unique compromise proposal in which Zimbabwe would adopt a "twin cabinet" arrangement. This as he desperately tries to get that country's negotiating parties to conclude a much-awaited power sharing deal.
Morgan Tsvangirai has accepted Mr Mbeki's proposal and for the first time in the latter's mediation initiative, the ball is now effectively in Robert Mugabe's court to end the deadlock in the long-stalled talks.
A final deal was not signed yesterday, despite the optimism raised by all the three leaders of the negotiating parties when they left the Rainbow Towers Hotel on Tuesday.
Authoritative sources said this was because much of the day was spent debating on the configuration of powers between the offices of president and prime minister as they continued exploring the most appropriate method to adopt. Mr Tsvangirai had gone back to insisting on being designated head of government with power to chair the cabinet while Mr Mugabe would be head of state. Mr Mugabe was, on the other hand, not willing to relinquish chairing of cabinet to Mr Tsvangirai.
Mr Mbeki then suggested a compromise proposal in which a "council of ministers" chaired by Mr Tsvangirai as prime minister would be created. The "council of ministers" would be charged with debating and formulating government policy and overseeing its implementation, among other things. Mr Mugabe would then remain as chairman of cabinet, which would review the work of the "council of ministers".
While Mr Tsvangirai accepted the proposal, sources claimed that Mr Mugabe had rejected it, saying it would render him largely ceremonial. Mr Mugabe preferred to just have one cabinet which he would lead, with Mr Tsvangirai as his deputy, though as a compromise Mr Mugabe would also cede more supervisory power to the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader.
Before accepting Mr Mbeki's compromise proposal, Mr Tsvangirai had insisted that it would be a major anomaly to have a prime minister who did not chair cabinet.
If Mr Mugabe changes his mind and accepts Mr Mbeki's proposal, the parties would finally seek agreement on the allocation of the 31 cabinet portfolios and on a demand by Arthur Mutambara, a leader of a smaller splinter faction of the MDC, to be appointed deputy prime minister, before they sign a deal today.
The allocation of cabinet portfolios should not present a major challenge as Mr Mugabe had earlier accepted that the prime minister could play a more supervisory role over all ministries, dropping his earlier demand that all security ministries be his sole prerogative.
"The problem has been the changing and shifting of positions in these talks and if everything holds and Mugabe concedes on Mbeki's proposal, then perhaps all will be finished today," said a senior source. Mr Tsvangirai is opposed to Mr Mutambara's elevation to deputy prime minister because he does not think that the robotics professor deserves it. Mr Mutambara did not contest the presidential elections on 29 March, preferring to back Mr Mugabe's former finance minister Simba Makoni, who fared dismally. In parliamentary elections, Mr Tsvangirai won 100 seats against 99 for Zanu-PF and 10 for Mutambara. Mr Tsvangirai believes there is no basis for Mr Mutambara's demand since the numbers don't support it and he would prefer any deputy slots to be filled by his own nominees.
An agreement has already been reached that Mr Mugabe retains his two vice-presidents.
The negotiating parties had resolved another sticking point about the constitution. They had agreed on embarking on a new constitution-making process as soon as the power-sharing deal becomes operational and to complete the entire exercise with a national referendum on any draft supreme law within two years.
Although the idea of a "twin cabinet" was a potential recipe for disaster, the MDC thought it would have given it a base for outwitting Mr Mugabe, who would not sit in the "council of ministers".
Even though most of the participants in the council and the cabinet would be the same, the latter would effectively have been reduced to an appendage of the "council of ministers".
Mr Mugabe, who believes this would strip him of real power, had asked for the council idea to be reconsidered and to have just one cabinet. For the first time in the talks, it is Mr Mugabe who is stalling progress. Previously, it was Mr Tsvangirai, who had refused to sign a proposed deal, which he argued would have left him in a ceremonial role.
A meeting of the 14-nation Southern African Development Community on politics, defence and security that had been scheduled in Swaziland yesterday, in anticipation that a Zimbabwe power sharing deal would have been signed, had to be postponed.